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The Ernest Mine Disaster of 1916

Miners undergroundMine entrance

By Eileen Mountjoy

 

Four miles north of Indiana, Pennsylvania, lies the mining town of Ernest, established in 1903 by the Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Company. In its infancy Ernest was known locally as a "model mining village" of 156 houses, 2 churches, a school, and a community center. During the first several years of development at the site the R & P opened four drift type mines in the upper Freeport E coal seam and built 274 beehive coke ovens which by 1909 had an annual production of 17,946 tons. By the close of 1906 more than one thousand men worked at the operation.

Newspaper headlines today still show that mining is a hazardous occupation. In the early 1900s it was even more hazardous. Modern attitudes toward mining safety were only slowly developing, and the inadequate mining technology of those days sometime created dangerous conditions of it's own. Moreover, the advent of huge mining operations, such as the Ernest works, increased the potential for underground accidents. With odds like those it is not surprising that Indiana County's first major mining disaster happened in Ernest. Nonetheless, by the standards of the day the Ernest mines were not regarded as particularly dangerous. 1906 the Pennsylvania state mine inspector noted in his annual report that the mine, Ernest were in good condition and well ventilated by Capell, Robinson and Clark fans.

On February 5, 1910, the town got a view of the dangerous possibilities when explosion of dust and accumulated gas occurred near the face of No. 5 room off No. 11 entry, resulting in the deaths of eleven men. County Coroner James S. Hammers held an inquest in the weeks that followed, and the jurors determined that the dead miners had succumbed to the "afterdamp," a mixture of gases remaining in a mine after a fire or explosion of firedamp (methane). Families buried their dead; the town mourned.  The miners who remained went back to their underground livelihoods, and for the next six years the mines at Ernest produced coal without a major disaster.

On the morning of February 11, 1916, miners' wives in Ernest rose early as usual, put pots of oatmeal on their stoves, and packed their husbands' dinner pails The women filled the "buckets," which resembled a double boiler with two compartments, with several thick sandwiches. Hot tea or coffee went in the bottom part. Miners habitually carried large quantities of food and drink into the mines in case of a cave-in which could imprison them for hours or even days. While women performed morning chores and sleepy children ate their breakfasts, the Ernest miners on first shift gathered their tools together in preparation for the day's work. Each man supplied his own pick and shovel, carbide for his lamp, and powder and squibs for "shooting down" the coal. Several improvements in the years preceding 1916 had made mining somewhat easier and safer for the men working in Ernest No. 2. That year, the R & P purchased twenty-one electric cutting machines for the plant, greatly reducing the amount of work done by hand. With the increased availability of electric cap lamps, only certain portions of the mine were worked with open carbide lights.Many of the miners who entered the No. 2 mine on the morning of Friday, February 11, 1916, were not, however, wearing the safer, battery-operated cap lamps. The new electric cap lamps were cumbersome to wear and the batteries often leaked acid. Besides, the men who worked in the fifteenth right room of headings three and four felt safe working with the older carbide lights; gas had never before been discovered in this part of the mine. Ordinarily, forty-three men mined coal in this area, but due to the funeral of one of the crew, the working force was reduced that day. Another miner, Amos Craven, missed the man trip on Friday morning because his alarm clock had failed to go off. After waiting for him for a few minutes, the rest of the men climbed into the motorized man trip, and, setting their dinner pails on the floor between their feet, left the daylight behind them.

Back at home the miners' wives did breakfast dishes, sent children off to school, and began the day's cleaning and washing. As early afternoon approached, clerks in the company store set out fresh fruits and vegetables; miners sometimes stopped on their way home to pick up something extra for supper. At school, children watched the clock restlessly, awaiting the dismissal hour. In Ernest No. 2 the men mined and loaded coal, By that evening, twenty-seven of them were dead.

No one on the outside heard the sound of the explosion. "Butch" Tortella, a retired miner who still lives in Ernest, was only a small boy at the time of the tragedy, but he remembers that it was Jimmy Moody, the motorman, who brought the news to the surface. When he took his locomotive back into the mine late that afternoon to bring out the loaded mine cars, Moody discovered the body of one of the miners only about a mile from the entrance. Hurrying back to the surface, he quickly summoned help. No whistle or siren blew to alert the rest of the town, for large crowds could have made rescue work more difficult. The miners were changing shifts at the time of the explosion, making making it inpossible at first to tell how many men had been in the mine. One of the men, Ben O'Hara, was just walking out of the mine when he felt the force of the explosion on his back. While on his way to the entrance of the mine lie had passed George Bunton, Jr., going to work and as soon as O'Hara realized what had happened, he started back after his friend. Before he reached Bunton, however, O'Hara encountered two other men lying on the floor of the mine. He succeeded in dragging both fallen miners to safety and went back after Bunton, but was unable to reach him. Bunton's body was brought to the surface shortly before 9:00 p.m. that evening. The exact time of the tragedy was later determined from a watch found hanging from a pocket of one of the dead men. The watch was smashed and the hands pointed to 3:20 p.m.

Rescue teams formed rapidly at the mouth of the mine as word of the explosion pread to Indiana. Crews from nearby mining towns arrived by automobile, and Thomas Lowther of Indiana took charge of the rescue attempts. Alt available doctors and nurses from the Indiana Hospital rushed to Ernest, together with Dr. C. Paul Reed of Homer City and Dr. F. F. Moore of Lucerne. Officials of the R & P and of the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh Railway hurried to the scene in a special train from Punxsutawney, arriving in Ernest shortly before 8:00 p.m. F. M. Fritchman, general superintendent of the coal company, was early on the scene and assisted in the direction of the mine rescuers. A specially equipped mine rescue car came from Pittsburgh on the tracks of the B R & P, and by night fall every mining town in the district was represented by a rescue team.

Pennsylvania state troopers were summoned and prevented families and friends of the trapped miners from passing over the bridge leading to the mouth of the mine. An Indiana newspaper reported that there was "no great excitement" at the site; only the "silently weeping women, wringing their hands and giving vent to little cries of despair, and the hushed whispers of the crowd" could be heard.

By nightfall on Friday the rescue teams were organized and working their way into the mine. The first crew to report back told of barriers of tangled debris, but fortunately there was little fire due to the lack of oxygen at the scene of the explosion. Teams dug through the debris after clearing part of the main road and rebuilding the mine brattices as they advanced. The first of the bodies was brought to the surface about 4:30 a.m. on Saturday and the others at various intervals until daylight. A special train carried the dead to Indiana where morticians prepared the bodies for burial.

By Saturday evening, little more than twenty-four hours after the explosion, three Indiana undertakers had finished the embalming of the twenty-six dead miners. Reports later estimated that nearly three thousand people, some moved by the tragedy, others merely curious, viewed the bodies as they lay in three separate Indiana store buildings. "The condition of the bodies," noted the Indiana Evening Gazette, "was remarkable; of course a few, who had been more severely burned . . . presented horrible sights" On Monday afternoon funeral services were held according to the religious affiliations of the dead. A large trench was dug at St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Cemetery in Indiana; twelve of the miners were laid there in a single grave. Two of the men were immigrants who had arrived alone in America. As they spoke little English and had few friends, their full names were never known. Later, the body of Pompia George was recovered from the mine, bringing the total number of dead to twentyseven. The long grave at St. Bernard's was reopened to receive his body.

By Monday morning, February 14, coal company officials and Pennsylvania statemine inspectors started the investigation of the Ernest explosion. James E. Roderick, chief of the Department of Mines at Harrisburg, arrived that evening to take charge personally. B. M. Clark of Punxsutawney, assistant to R & P President Lucius Waterman Robinson, stated publicly that at least half a dozen theories as to the cause of the explosion had been advanced. A miner named Nord, who survived the blast, stated that he was about fourteen hundred feet inside the mine when the first detonation occurred. He was knocked about twenty feet and landed against one of the mine ribs. Before Nord could get to his feet a second explosion erupted and knocked him unconscious. His proximity to the mouth of the mine prevented him from breathing the poisonous fumes caused by the blast. Nord seemed positive that two explosions took place in the fifteenth right room of headings three and four, about a mile and a quarter from the entrance.

Investigations carried out by a five-man team of Pennsylvania state mine inspectors from five districts concurred with the account given by Nord from his hospital bed. On February 15, three days after the disaster, the inspection team submitted its findings to Roderick. Their document is printed in full in the Report of the Department of Mines of Pennsylvania for the year ending 1916. It states that the inspection team entered Ernest No. 2 on Monday, February 14, and made an investigation of all rooms, butts and entries. They found loaded mine cars blown off the track, a ventilation door forced through its frame and a badly wrecked mining machine. They also found evidence of intense heat and considerable force" surrounding rooms No. 14 and No. 15 right entry, all the way to room No. 8, but not extending to any other area of the mine. After completely examining the section where the disaster happened and noting all conditions caused by the explosion, all members of the team concluded that "a body of explosive gas, which had accumulated on a fall* ... was forced down by another fall of the upper strata and was ignited by the open carbide lights of the miners working on the pillar of 14 1/2 entry." The report noted that "all persons working in the vicinity were burned and afterwards suffocated by the afterdamp." Investigators had "no criticism to offer in regard to the work of the mine superintendent, the mine foreman and his assistants who were in charge ... as no explosive gas was ever previously discovered in No. 141/2 or No. 15 right entry. . . in this part of No. 2 mine," The team concluded by making some recommendations to aid in the prevention of similar accidents, including the use of locked safety lamps in any pillar working within a reasonable distance of places where falls could possibly occur.

Unfortunately, the Ernest disaster was only one of many tragedies of this type. Available records show that there were 170 gas and dust explosions in Pennsylvania bituminous mines from 1878 through 1932, resulting in 1984 fatalities or an average of about 12 fatalities in each explosion. Of this total, eighty-five of the explosions are classified as being characterized by marked violence; of these eighty-five, forty explosions, or forty-seven percent of the total, were caused by open lights. In the thirteen years from 1920 to 1932, however, there were only seven explosions from this source. The widespread, if belated, use of electric cap lamps in Pennsylvania bituminous mines after 1920 undoubtedly contributed to the decrease of explosions of this type.

The problem of correctly designating mines as gaseous or nongaseous took longer to resolve. The first attempts at careful classification came in 1909, but over the next years, the records showed scores of cases in which so-called nongaseous mines experienced severe explosions. As a result, the United States Bureau of Mines in 1933 began to consider all coal mines, if not gaseous, at least potentially gaseous. Since the Coal Mines Health and Safety Act of 1969, all coal mines are classified as gaseous. With the continued increase of research directed towards the science of mine health and safety, especially in the last ten years, the mining industry can look forward to the day when major mining disasters will take their place with the Ernest explosion of 1916---in the past.

A "fall" results from a sudden dropping of rock from the roof, leaving in its place a gap or bellow which may be several feet in diameter. Any formation of gas in the area quickly rises to the roof, filling the pocket left by the fall. (In the early 1900S it was a common practice for miners to burn up small gas deposits over falls by igniting them with their carbide lights!

 

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